Monday, March 28, 2011

They Are Filling In At The Starting Gate

It’s finally here, that is, the beginning of the 2012 presidential race.

President Obama is the overwhelming favorite to be his party’s nominee again, although the volatility of the domestic economy and high risks of his foreign policy keep alive the possibility that a dissatisfied and prominent Democrat might challenge him several months hence, but that remains only a possibility.

Most of the action in the 2012 presidential race will, of course, take place in the contest for the Republican nomination. A substantial discussion about this race has already taken place in the media, but that’s all it has been, a limited conversation among a tiny number of political reporters, pundits, political consultants, pollsters and bloggers. A larger number, but still relatively small group, of party activists have also been busy in the preview stage of the race, and many have already taken sides — and jobs — with potential candidates in various states of preparations for their official announcements.

I want to stress that it is almost entirely VERY speculative discussion until we hear definitively from actual voters in primaries, caucuses, and some early straw votes. It has already been pointed out that, at this point of the 2008 campaign, Rudy Giuliani was the frontrunner, McCain trailed, and Fred Thompson had notable poll numbers. Mike Huckabee was even not being mentioned.

As it turned out, Giuliani and Thompson proved to be dreadful candidates, and went nowhere quickly. (Thompson, the seasoned actor, got in late, but kept looking at his shoes instead of his audiences during his speeches.) Huckabee was the surprise winner of the Iowa caucus, Romney did well in New Hampshire, but it was McCain going up and down until he finally secured the nomination.

Some of the main characters from 2008 are back, most notably Mitt Romney, the early 2012 frontrunner, and possibly Huckabee (who scores very well in most early polls).

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, seems likely to run, and also has high name recognition and good poll numbers, although he has not run for president before. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is almost sure to run, and is winning unexpected attention in this early stage. Current Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has seemed tentative about running, although he has done well in early forays, and has a broad base of support among fellow GOP leaders, Current Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has been a formidable figure at both the national and state level, and is gathering some top consultants, but his early campaign statements have included a number of blunders. Mike Huckabee has hemmed and hawed, and now indicates that if he gets in, it will be much later this year. With a lucrative national TV show, and limited possibilities outside his base, Huckabee may be a no-show. Current Ambassador to China and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has indicated he might enter the contest, although he has not run for national office before, and in recent days (as it becomes likelier that 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin may not run), Tea Party Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann has been traveling across the county to try to stir up interest in her running for president. There will be at least 3-5 other major GOP figures who will likely announce their candidacies.

I would like to suggest that there is no true GOP frontrunner yet, and that the race at this point is truly open. This, I repeat, is because we really have no credible idea how GOP voters feel about these candidates, and we have little evidence yet, except in the case of Romney and Huckabee, of how these figures would be as presidential candidates.

Remember, Giuliani looked very strong early in the 2008 race, and was undeniably a formidable politician, but it turned out he was a lousy candidate for president. Thompson was a famous movie star, but it turned out he could not give a good political speech. Romney looked like a winner, but could not connect sufficiently with GOP voters across the country.

In 2011, Romney is back, apparently stronger than before, but still facing the challenge of achieving more direct appeal to voters. Gingrich is a unique figure in U.S. politics, has made a remarkable political comeback, and clearly dominates the debate, but if he does not stop responding to questions about his marriages, and otherwise speaking impetuously, he will have increasing problems. Haley Barbour is a wily politician and excellent governor, but he does not yet sound like a president. Mitch Daniels could be the surprise of the year, but it won’t happen if he does not soon convey a clear impression to voters that he really wants to be president. The so-called “sleeper” of the race, Tim Pawlenty is enjoying the most early success, but most Republican voters still don’t know who he is, and he has not yet been tested on the national campaign trail and in debates with his rivals.

I have consistently maintained that the Republican nominee for president will move into the White House on January 20, 2013. Although much is always made about the possibility of events and a suddenly-improving economy restoring President Obama’s chances to win in 2012, I think the past several months have clearly demonstrated that Mr. Obama is way over his head in the job, and that his healthcare legislation will probably remain a powerful negative for voters. Of course, if the GOP convention somehow nominates someone way off center, that could be self-defeating.

Now there will be announcements, debates, political ads, campaign strategies. The campaign is at last underway. But I’m keeping my predictive political powder dry for a while. Ron Paul will make some noise and get some media attention, but his campaign is going nowhere. If Michelle Bachmann wants to throw away her seat in Congress to run for president, it’s a free country, but she is not going to be the GOP nominee. (Perhaps she knows that, but craves the attention of a national campaign nontheless.)

Get yourselves a ticket for the show, however. It’s going to be a humdinger, a lulu, a rip-hummer, a crackajack, a lollapaloosa, a dilly, a buzzblast and who knows what else.

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